Racism In Sonny's Blues

1163 Words 5 Pages
Drugs, crime, unemployment, crowded living conditions, and segregation infested early 20th century Harlem. Many of which still remain today. All of these hardships in 20th century Harlem are excellently described in Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin. Baldwin shows us what African American people went through in Harlem. Baldwin describes Harlem as a very dark place and often repeats the darkness of Harlem throughout the story. This darkness he describes is the living condition in Harlem. The narrator of the story describes how the kids only knew darkness.
They were filled with rage. All they really knew were two darknesses, the darkness of their lives, which was now closing in on them, and the darkness of the movies, which had blinded them to
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Heroin became really popular in early Harlem. It practically was a life source for the people. In Sonny’s Blues the narrator’s brother “Sonny” is an active heroin user and actually gets arrested for doing it when the police raided the house. With all the “darkness” that Baldwin describes in Sonny’s Blues, it comes as no surprise that a good sum of the populace is active drug users. The narrator in Baldwin’s story says “It filled everything, the people, the houses, the music, the dark, quicksilver barmaid, with menace; and this menace was their reality” (125). In early Harlem African American families would live tightly packed in apartments. Primarily due to the Great Depression and racism. The households were not only packed with relatives, but strangers as well. In This Harlem Life, the authors describe the lives of five African American families that lived in Harlem at this time, in which, all of them lived tightly packed. Economic issues eventually broke up some of the families as well. It is bad enough to be living packed, but living packed in apartments that weren’t even big enough for a regular family made it even worse. The narrator in Sonny’s Blues stated, “The big windows fool no one, they aren’t big enough to make space out of no space.” One can only imagine the type of stress and depression you’d have …show more content…
During this time in Harlem jazz was coming up as a big cultural music movement. The importance of jazz is that it wasn’t classical music, and that is the beauty of it. At the time what was known as “classical” music was of European traditions (Thomas 237). According to what Wilder Hobson stated in his article in The Musical Times, “jazz is not a collection of tricks, but a language.” We see this same concept in the narrator’s reaction during Sonny’s performance. Jazz was something created by the African Americans. It was not only the spreading of a type of music, but the spreading of culture. In Sonny’s Blues, the narrator’s brother “Sonny,” loves playing jazz and would like to live his life just playing jazz. He tells the narrator this, and he replies “`Are you serious?’” The narrator than asks him to name a jazz musician that he admires. Sonny replies “Bird.” The narrator does not know who that is and Sonny replies “Bird! Charlie Parker! Don’t they teach you nothing in the goddamn army?” This was an important part of the story because the narrator is someone who just ignores all the problems in Harlem. So by Baldwin letting us know that he has no knowledge about jazz, we also know that he is not familiar with the culture in Harlem. The narrator understands this later on when he sees Sonny perform and states, “Sonny’s finger filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many

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